Writing the World: Alison Lester, Australian Children’s Laureate

You can almost smell the fresh air and sunshine when you’re talking to Alison Lester. This bestselling children’s writer and illustrator is one of Australia’s two inaugural Children’s Laureates, along with storyteller, Boori Monty Pryor. Talkative, restless and contemplative in turn, Lester is, above all else, a country girl. I had the privilege of meeting her while she was in Galway as she took a few days’ leave from her hectic touring schedule. I started by asking her about her childhood.

‘I lived on a farm that looked over a big inlet, near the mountains of Wilsons Promontory in the very south-eastern corner of Australia. My father and his brother had the lease of the mountainous area across the water from our house. They used it to run cattle there. So I really did grow up feeling that that whole world belonged to me.’ A sense of place is very important to her, one feels, both as a person and a writer. Remembering herself as a child makes her smile. ‘I had plenty of time to myself. We all worked hard on the farm and that was a joy. I never felt that it was a chore at all. One funny thing about that was that we were never allowed to read during the day. If we were caught reading, when it was still bright outside, we were told to get outside and do some work! I used to sneak off though and read in all sorts of places…’

Looking through her many books for children, her love of the great outdoors is central; that, and her passion for horses. Whether it is the beautiful board book, Noni The Pony, or her sensitive novel for older children, The Quicksand Pony, Lester shows her deep familiarity with horses, while spinning powerful tales for all ages. Most of her books are set in a rural Australia and many explore the theme of imagination. Not surprisingly, Lester was herself an imaginative child, and started to write at an early age. ‘At school, I loved “composition”, as we used to call it. I still have a book that I wrote when I was ten. It was a school project and my mother kept it for me, which was very sweet of her, and it was called The Secret Of St Claire’s. I absolutely loved the School Friend comics, which were all about English girls at boarding school. Even though I lived in this beautiful world, where I was outside doing things all the time, when I had the chance to write a book, I wrote a book just like the things that I loved to read like School Friend magazine.’

Later, as an adult, when she got a chance to write a real book, that beautiful world she grew up in was very much at the heart of things. ‘I am deeply conscious of nature, and just on this recent trip, when I was travelling through China, I found the countryside very depressing. Just seeing so much of the land covered with concrete roads and building. I find myself wondering what’s happening to the poor old earth? And that goes back to growing up in that beautiful place where my parents were farmers who really looked after the land. If there was a place where the cattle were rubbing the earth, for example, that part would be fenced off and protected. We grew up with a great sense that the world was something we had to look after.’

Nowhere is her fondness for the earth more obvious than in her multi-award-winning book One Small Island; a non-fiction picturebook about the life and times of Macquarie Island – a sub-Antarctic Island and World Heritage Site. ‘In 2005 I travelled to Antarctica as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow. I went on the Aurora Australis on a six-week resupply voyage to Australia’s stations at Mawson, Casey and Macquarie Island. My project was called Kids’ Antarctic Art. I kept a diary and every night I emailed the kids around the world, told them what I was seeing and doing, and I asked them to draw what I was describing.’
This adventure delivered another book, the beautifully illustrated Sophie Scott Goes South, in which Lester’s alter ego, Sophie, takes the same trip. Like Lester, she keeps a diary, and gives us a child’s-eye view of the wonders of the Antarctica.

But in real life Lester found that all was not totally wonderful in Antarctica. ‘I really enjoyed the trip, but when we reached Macquarie Island I was shocked to see the terrible state it was in. I’d heard a little bit about it because my brother-in-law had been there as a chief officer for the Australian Antarctic Division back in the 1980s, and he had described it as this beautiful place. I’d also seen fantastic photographs from the 1960s and 1970s. I was expecting to see mega herbs and giant tussocks and albatrosses nesting in amongst waving grasses, but when I got there the vegetation was chewed to the ground. Without vegetation to hold it, the soil was badly eroded and many of the birds were suffering without sheltering plants.’ She went on to explain the history of the island. ‘When the island was discovered by sealers in 1810 not only did they go down there and kill all the fur seals (they killed 200,000 fur seals in the space of 20 years), but they released rabbits as a food source. Over the years the rabbits bred up so that when I was there, there were probably over 100,000 rabbits on the island, and they were just destroying it. The Australian government finally came up with more than 20 million dollars and a programme where they dropped poisoned baits and killed all the rats, mice and rabbits on the island, and so halted the destruction. I thought it would be a beautiful story to tell, to see something that we have wrecked, and then managed to restore again. In the end I got together with my friend Coral Tulloch and we both wrote the story and both illustrated it, which is a really unusual way to do a book.’

It might have been an unusual way to write, but the book went on to win multiple awards, including The Wilderness Society’s Environment Award For Children’s Literature in 2012. Reading it, you can see that it is a labour of love, full of intricate detail, tracing the island’s history, but also using it as a symbol for the earth itself. The final spread, with its rich purples, pinks and blues, sees a bird fly back towards the island where it will hopefully find a safe home.

WHEN I’M ILLUSTRATING I ALWAYS THINK: OH GOSH, IT WOULD BE LOVELY TO BE WRITING. IT’S SO EASY, AND THEN WHEN I’M WRITING I THINK THE SAME ABOUT ILLUSTRATING, BUT I THINK ESSENTIALLY I AM A VERY VISUAL PERSON SO I’D PROBABLY SAY ILLUSTRATING. EVEN WHEN I WRITE I OFTEN FEEL LIKE I’M ILLUSTRATING WITH WORDS

Lester is known all over the world as a writer and as an illustrator. I wondered how she saw herself. ‘It all depends on what I’m doing. When I’m illustrating I always think: oh gosh, it would be lovely to be writing. It’s so easy, and then when I’m writing I think the same about illustrating, but I think essentially I am a very visual person so I’d probably say illustrating. Even when I write I often feel like I’m illustrating with words. With picturebooks you have to write in a visual way, and in a spare way too. You can’t have too many spare words floating about. It’s about pruning, hacking, pruning, hacking, and then polishing.’

One of Lester’s main missions as Laureate is to encourage children to become empowered and to act as storytellers in their own right. She showed me a selection of books written by the children she works with in creative workshops and on school visits. ‘The books are made in remote indigenous communities where many children don’t have English as their first language, or even second language. These are their stories, their illustrations, their own words. I just act as the organiser.’ These children do not have books published for them in their own languages since the education system in Australia only recognises English in schools. I was impressed by how exquisite the books were: little slices of life from unique communities. In ‘Living At Timber Creek’, written by Miss Cissy’s Class, for example, the illustrations are made with wax crayon in bright sunny colours and the text features snippets from the lives of the children: ‘Telissa’s dogs are barking at a dingo. Zac watches the wind blowing through the grass. Jake’s house has a big boab tree at the front.’ Gaela (a member of Miss Jo’s class who wrote the collection, ‘Creatures of Timber Creek’), describes a Bush Turkey thus: ‘Feathers are soft/Smooth grey neck/Glides across the billabong/Digs in dust to make her nest.’ This is the kind of work Alison wants to pursue as Laureate. ‘When I’m working in schools, the thing that strikes me is how fabulous kids are. They are all bursting with potential. Some schools have loads of resources and then there are poor raggedy schools, where children just don’t get the chance to shine. I just want to give them a leg up. I would be very happy if my term as Laureate could make a difference to their lives.’